John John’s Christmas Eve Fried Rabbit Tradition
The centerpiece of my grandfather's wild game feast.
For some, the menu on Christmas Eve includes a lineup of quintessential Southern classics: beef tenderloin or honey-baked ham, buttery mashed potatoes or marshmallowy sweet potatoes, creamy green bean casserole or crispy brussels sprouts, flaky crescent rolls or fluffy biscuits. For others, the menu veers from tradition, takes an unexpected turn, and skews to match the taste of whoever is in charge. For my family, the decision-making power fell into the hands of my grandfather John. An avid outdoorsman, he decided that on Christmas Eve we'd have a wild game feast, showcasing the wide variety of what he'd caught, hunted, or grown over the past few seasons, and it evolved into our holiday ritual.
"Peter Cottontail will be at lunch tomorrow," was the text my brother, William, and I received from our grandfather (whom we called John John) one December 23. Deep fried—that is. A rabbit had come across John John's line of fire while he was quail hunting, and he half-jokingly decided that the carrot-loving creature would perfectly round out his wild game feast. "Yes!" William responded. "Gross," I replied.
"Looks like we've got ancestor troubles," John John bellowed as we jumped out of the car when we arrived at his house on Christmas Eve and raced to the porch to greet him. He took his position at the grill, flanked by my dad and uncle, cooking pieces of marinated backstrap and bacon-wrapped doves stuffed with cream cheese, just a portion of the lunch proteins. "Ole Bugs Bunny is inside," he said to me, nodding toward the door.
Curious, I headed to the kitchen for a peek. On the counter, the selection of fried goods rested underneath a heat lamp, snapper from the summer, and quail breasts from a few days before. I scanned the tray of crispy brown pieces for a sign of the rabbit but couldn't pick him out from the others. Until I saw what looked like a deep-fried version of a lucky furry rabbit's foot keychain that I'd begged my mom to buy me from the gas station in elementary school. There he was—Peter Cottontail, golden and glowing in the lamp's sunny rays.
Supposedly, fried rabbits' feet are equally as lucky as their colorful keychain counterparts, so my brother quickly snatched one from the tray and put it on his plate, not that he faced much competition from the rest of us. Our family's mixed reviews of the new addition are probably how rabbit earned a permanent spot on the menu (and possibly because William convinced everyone that rabbit tasted a lot like chicken when you didn't focus too hard on exactly what you were eating).
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John John's fried rabbit recipe is pretty simple. Start by washing the skinned rabbit well and then place it on a paper towel. Generously salt and pepper the pieces and let them sit for 30 minutes. Place them in a bowl of cultured buttermilk, and let them rest for at least an hour. Then batter the pieces with self-rising flour and seasoned salt. Fry them in peanut oil, 350° to 400°, until done.
This year will be our first Christmas without John John, but preparations for his wild game feast are already underway—fried rabbit included.